Wilkes Creative Writing Professor Kaylie Jones Talks with the Man Booker Prize Winner
By Kaylie Jones
When Marlon James MA ’06’s novel A Brief History of Seven Killings was selected in October 2015 as the Man Booker Prize winner, it catapulted the Wilkes creative writing alumnus to literary stardom. As the first Jamaican to win the international prize, James now is in the company of such notable authors as Salman Rushdie, Hillary Mantel, Philip Roth and Alice Munro.
James’ prize-winning novel is an epic 686 pages with 75 characters and voices. Set in Kingston, Jamaica, where James was born, the book is a fictional history of the attempted murder of reggae artist Bob Marley in 1976.
In this conversation with novelist Kaylie Jones, the Wilkes creative writing faculty member who discovered him and brought him to study at the University, James, who teaches at Macalester College in Saint Paul, Minn., discusses the biases in publishing, his writing process and handling rejection.
Kaylie Jones: I’ll never forget the day I met you. In March 2004 I arrived in Kingston, Jamaica, to teach a fiction workshop and was driven to a house that was still under construction, bare concrete and wood beams. I found myself at the head of a long table with eight Jamaicans staring at me with expectant looks. You were the only male in the group, and the only one who looked miserable. Within the first hour I realized that you had read almost every book I mentioned, and you had an almost encyclopedic memory for character names and imagery. When you submitted the first chapter of your novel to the workshop, I took the pages back to the house where I was staying and was up late reading. I was absolutely stunned by the quality of your work.
The next day, after the workshop, I asked you if you had more pages. You were kind of evasive. At the time I didn’t know why. I said something like, “Listen, I don’t lie and I don’t fool around, I don’t have time. I’m telling you this is really good.” You then told me that you’d sent that very novel (John Crow’s Devil) out to 40, 50, 60 agents, editors, and publishers, and every single one had turned it down.
What you told me years later, when we became friends, was that you had destroyed every copy of that book in existence and had nothing to give me. I believe you said that finally, in desperation, you emailed a friend in London and asked him if he still had the book as an attachment in his in-box — the last copy in existence. All I can say is, thank God he still had the copy. If you had not pursued writing, the loss to the world of literature would have been staggering and incomprehensible.
Marlon James: I remember. The last place I wanted to be was that workshop. I had learned so much from the previous teacher, Elizabeth Nunez (novelist and American Book Award winner), but between that class and yours, my novel had been rejected around 50 times, and another 28 or so from even before that. The manuscript made it as far as an editor at Houghton Mifflin, who then went to work for Playboy, which, of course, killed the book. One could argue that I was simply sending work to the wrong agents and publishers, but it astounded me just how narrow-minded they were, even the indie
KJ: As a writing teacher yourself, how often do you think mainstream publishing misses a truly great writer completely?
MJ: Mainstream publishing misses great writers all the time, but to a huge extent it’s because mainstream agents don’t care about these writers as well. There were as many agents who turned down the book as there were publishers. Nobody wanted to publish it, and nobody wanted to rep it either. And that didn’t change much the second time around, by the way. Riverhead published my second novel, The Book of Night Women, but they were also the only publisher that wanted it. Indie successes like Akashic Press, whom you gave my first novel to, and Graywolf have made mainstream publishers reconsider what’s a sellable novel, but too many still err on the side of a very outdated idea of sellable or even successful.
And it’s not just publishers or agents. What about MFA programs that pass on great writers because of a very narrow idea of what makes good fiction, or more specifically, a very narrow idea of the kind of writer they want to teach? Two of my finest students have yet to find a program to accept them, one of whom wrote the first book to make me cry in years.
KJ: Well, please send those students to us at Wilkes. As a teacher, what I find distressing is how students often think it’s easy. They’re going to write a novel and become rich and famous, like Stephen King. I feel it’s my dirty job to inform them that this is not the case.
But, writing a great novel takes work. You worked very, very hard on all three of your novels. As a writer, you’re driven, ambitious, and totally original. You don’t shy away from terrible, dark subjects. In fact, you have taken some flak for showing the bleaker and more gruesome side of human nature. But I love your courage. It is one of the things I love most about you and your work. When you write about human weakness and deprivation, do you ever fear your readership’s reaction?
MJ: I do fear reader reaction sometimes, and with A Brief History of Seven Killings, it wasn’t just content, it was also form. I knew the assassination scene in my book had to hew closer to lyrics than prose, something like blank verse, but stayed away from it for months because I feared readers would either not get it, or think it was pretentious. The same thing with that seven-page sentence, or throwing narration to a ghost, or having characters whose accounts of the same story simply didn’t add up. I had to convince my French translator…that these were not mistakes in the novel but slightly unreliable narration.
But I do worry about content also. I knew the sex and violence had to be explicit when they were onstage but I worried about reader reaction. The whole time I was writing scenes of gay intimacy I wondered if I was writing an invitation to be attacked in Jamaica. I felt the same way about unmasking these secrets of Jamaican political history that we would rather not talk about. I worried about everything from critical scorn to censorship to death threats. And yet I wrote those scenes anyway, because it was either that or not write the book at all.
I think these are essential aspects of the human experience, and capturing them is the reason we are here. There are things a novelist can do that nobody else can. We can flip history inside out and tell it from the forgotten people who had to carry the burden of it. Because so much of what we do is invention, we can skirt closer to the truth than anybody else, even with sex. For example, there’s a scene in my book where Weeper, the second most dangerous character in the novel, is having sex with a white man. The scene simply had to be explicit because it was only in the raw demonstration of his own sexuality—having sex with this man and learning to enjoy it step by step – that he also by extension finally learned to accept and even enjoy himself as a person, step by step. When I realized this is why the explicitness was important, I stopped worrying about what other people think.
KJ: Does it get easier to be so virulently criticized when you become as famous as you are right now?
MJ: I think the criticism gets easier when you realize that it’s not a discussion that you need to be a part of. J Robert Lennon (novelist and Cornell University professor) has a wonderful article on this, on how a review is a conversation with the reader, not author, and the author really doesn’t have to take part. Nowadays I don’t even read the good reviews.
KJ: But what you have accomplished for human rights has staggering consequences for the many LGBT people of the Caribbean. If your op-ed piece about coming out as gay had not been published by The New York Times (“From Jamaica to Minnesota to Myself,” March 10, 2015) – we might even say if you had not won the Man Booker Prize – Gabrielle Bellot’s New York Times op-ed piece of Sunday, Oct. 31, examining what it means to be queer in the Caribbean, might not have been published at all. She mentions you specifically as a beacon for people such as her. You are now in a leadership position, a brave man who has taken a stand against injustice and you are, therefore, hugely important. This is a kind of pressure that novelists rarely have.
MJ: It’s funny, because I’m seized by fear all the time. The whole time I was writing this book I wondered, are all the people I’m basing the story on really dead? Will there be reprisals? Can I go back to Jamaica? And that was before I even came out in The New York Times. I remember, the day after the article (was published), the novelist Colin Channer (author of Waiting In Vain) called and the first thing he said was, “Do you do anything small?” To think all I was doing was responding to a prompt from the editor, saying “voyage of the will.” Next thing I know, I’m coming out to millions. That was what came out. I knew there would be consequences and there are, both bad and good. On one hand, Jamaica celebrated the success— the Booker win made the front cover of all the papers. On the other hand, The New York Times piece went viral—inspiring bigotry on one hand, and accusations of shaming the country on the other.
But here’s the other thing that happened: dozens, hundreds, now thousands of Caribbean men and women thanking me for the piece. The reason why the negative responses don’t bother me is that it means I’m complicating the narrative of Jamaica. I’m not an activist and have very little patience for activist writers, but I couldn’t live a false life either. It says something though, doesn’t it, that just living the life that makes you happy turns out to be a stand? Recently I have become more and more comfortable with it, even speaking at a reception for Africa’s Out, a LGBT organization fighting for rights and protections on the continent.
It doesn’t mean I’ll feel safe in Jamaica again. But I will feel loved. My family has been great. My friends have made sure I know they’ve got my back. My favorite response to the piece was my friend Maxine talking to another friend, saying, “Did you see the piece where Marlon came out? When was he ever in?”
KJ: What are your plans for the future, Marlon? Do you have a project in mind?
MJ: As for the future, I’m leaving the 20th century for a while. Maybe Wolf Hall is rubbing off on me, but I’m going back to Africa in the Middle Ages!
KJ: You are a very disciplined writer, and I’m sure many aspiring writers would like to know what your process is like. Could you share that with us?
MJ: Now process is tricky, because it was thinking that I had a process that nearly killed the new novel. I learned from Colin Channer that what we often think of as process is really just habit. And sometimes that habit is exactly what’s preventing new and fresh writing. It’s the work that shapes the process, not the author, and I learned this the hard way. My last novel, The Book of Night Women, was essentially one voice establishing authority and communication with the reader, in much the same way a Bronte novel would. And it worked for that novel. But thinking that I now had a process, I applied that approach to A Brief History of Seven Killings and it was a disaster. I thought my process was finding that special voice to carry me through the entire novel, like a guide, but I couldn’t find that perfect voice.
I remember having dinner with my good friend Rachel and the first thing I said was, “I don’t know whose story this is.” She said, “Why do you think it’s one voice’s story? When was the last time you read As I Lay Dying?” That simple question changed everything. It was the breakthrough I was looking for, and my breakthroughs sometimes happen 50-100 pages into a novel. But it also made me think about process, how I was standing in the way of my own book because I was trying to recreate a process that worked for the previous one.
That said, while I chafe against the idea of process, I do love the idea of routine. Nancy McKinley (a professor in the Wilkes MFA Program) said this years ago, that if you are serious about writing and about a routine, then the muses will show up. Inspiration serves you instead of the other way around.
KJ: So many aspiring literary novelists are struggling with finding a publisher, let alone an audience. How did you keep your spirits up when you were feeling discouraged, and now that you’ve achieved what few young writers ever achieve, how do you stay on task?
MJ: It might sound kinda hokey, but I never thought about rejection before writing John Crow’s Devil, and 78 rejections afterwards I still didn’t think about it much. Riverhead published my second novel, of course, but what few people know is that they were the only publisher that wanted it. Everybody else turned it down. So with rejection being an ever-present reality in my life, the least I could do was not allow it into my writing.
I don’t think about the fate of my work when I’m writing it —otherwise I would start pandering to an audience. Acceptance and rejection can both wait. There will be enough time for quite a bit of both, so right now, while I’m writing, why not focus on just doing my very best work? I find that works even now that I no longer worry about rejection and finding a publisher. All that other stuff will happen anyway, so why not, when it’s just you and the work, focus on the work?